WISSA WASSEF (1873-1931)
An Egyptian politician. He was born in Tahta in Upper Egypt. In 1880 his family moved to Cairo, where Wissa finished his secondary education in foreign language schools, which then were numerous in Cairo. His achievement won him a scholarship to France in 1889. In Paris he was admitted to the Ecole normale primaire de Versailles. Three years later he joined the Ecole normale supérieure de St. Cloud, where in 1894 he obtained the teaching qualifications from these schools.
Back in Egypt, he became a teacher of science at Ra’s al-Tin School in Alexandria. An ardent patriot, he watched the heavy hand applied by the British colonial administration as all schools came under the supervision of British inspectors. Harassed by one of the inspectors, the young Wissa decided to study law as a means of combating British policies toward education. In the summer of 1902, he departed for France to take his exams. Consequently, he resigned his post as a teacher and was the first Egyptian to be admitted as a lawyer before the Mixed Tribunal in Cairo.
In 1904 he started publishing articles in English in The Egyptian Gazette, established a private law practice, and joined the faculty of the French School of Law in Cairo. In 1925 he resigned from the Mixed Tribunal and devoted himself entirely to politics.
Wissa Wassef joined the Egyptian Nationalist Party in 1906, inspired by the leader Mustafa Kamil, whose ideas and ideals he shared. He was the first Egyptian Christian to join the party and was followed by a colleague, Murqus Hanna, later to become one of its executive members. He was stigmatized by the Coptic community for joining a party that advocated allegiance to the Ottoman empire, an unacceptable choice to the Copts, whose rights had been completely ignored by the Sublime Porte (government offices in Istanbul during the reign of the sultan).
On 16 June 1908, in a series of articles in the organ of the Nationalist Party, Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jawish attacked the Copts, accusing them of considering “Islam a foreign religion in its own country.” Wissa Wassef and Murqus Hanna resigned from the party as religious tensions rose. The assassination of Boutros Ghali Pasha by a fanatic Muslim led to the convening of the COPTIC CONGRESS OF ASYUT in March 1911.
When the Wafd Party, headed by SA‘D ZAGHLUL, came into existence soon after the armistice in 1918, the Copts sought to be represented in it, and the choice fell on Wissa Wassef, who declined in favor of Wasif Boutros Ghali. Differences with the British colonialists soon led to the exile of Sa‘d Zaghlul and members of his party to Malta. Wissa Wassef was recruited as counselor to the group because of his oratorical skills, his perfect French, and his thorough knowledge of the “Egyptian question.”
Following that meeting, he was unanimously proclaimed full member of the Wafd and thereafter actively participated in the struggle against British rule. When Sa‘d Zaghlul was deported to the Seychelles for a second term of exile (1921-1923), Wissa Wassef along with Wasif Ghali took control of the Wafd and advocated Egypt’s boycott of all British goods.
In response British authorities incarcerated Wissa Wassef. After being released a few days later, he again incited the population to fight the British occupiers, whereupon he was arrested once more, brought before a military court, and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to seven years in prison and a fine of five thousand pounds. He in fact served ten months and paid a fine of fifteen hundred pounds. His liberation, together with the return of Sa‘d Zaghlul and other detainees from the Seychelles, relaxed the tension between British authorities and Egyptian nationalists.
Martial law was abrogated and the constitution promulgated on 19 April 1923 was accepted by the Wafd. Elections gave the Wafd a landslide victory and Wissa Wassef became deputy of Matariyyat al- Manzalah in the Delta, where he owned land. The proposal of his nomination as minister of education was rejected by King FOUAD on the ground that a Christian could not head an Islamic institution such as Al-Azhar University.
After the assassination of the sirdar, Parliament was closed and new elections ordered. The Wafd was once again victorious and, although Sa‘d Zaghlul was rejected as prime minister by the British, he won the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies. Serving with him as vice-presidents were Wissa Wassef and MUSTAFA AL-NAHHAS. Wissa Wassef championed many social, educational, and cultural projects.
When Sa‘d Zaghlul died on 24 August 1927, Wissa Wassef was nominated as his successor as speaker of the House.
Wissa Wassef decided to pursue the cause of an independent Egypt internationally. In August 1928 he went to Berlin via Paris, despite obstacles set up by the government of Egypt to stop him and the group he headed from attending the twenty-fifth Inter- parliamentary Conference. This was an occasion for him to attack the intolerable meddlings of the British colonialists in Egypt’s parliamentary affairs. Subsequent to his speech of 24 August, it was unanimously decided to call that day the Day of the Oppressed Nations.
The following day, 25 August 1928, an act condemning suspension of parliamentary governments was signed by representatives of thirty-eight nations, including Britain. That day was called the Egyptian Day. At the conference that followed in London in July 1930, the secretary-general of the Parliamentary Union emphasized international concern over parliamentary freedoms, citing Egypt’s stand at the 1928 Berlin conference as an example of success.
Some sort of stabilization seemed to follow with the coming to power of the Labour Party in London in May 1929, which authorized new elections in Egypt. The Wafd won by a landslide— 230 of the 235 seats—and the opening parliamentary session on 11 June 1930 gave a vote of confidence to Wissa Wassef, reinstating him with a comfortable majority as president of the Chamber of Deputies. In thanking his colleagues, he made a plea to all patriots to join hands in working toward national unity.
These events, however, met with opposition from King Fouad causing Nahhas Pasha to resign. Sidqi Pasha was nominated in his stead and issued new decrees restricting parliamentary activities. When protests followed, Sidqi Pasha ordered the doors of Parliament to be locked with chains. Wissa Wassef was put under house arrest. Outmaneuvering the guards around his house, however, he reached the Parliament buildings, where members of the House were already gathered.
He ordered the guards to break the chains, which had been installed in violation of the constitution, denouncing this step as illegal interference by Sidqi Pasha. He then read the decrees issued by Sidqi Pasha to the assembled members of Parliament, who renewed their allegiance to the constitution. Wassef then called a meeting of Parliament for 21 July. This won him the epithet the “Chain-breaker.”
The situation in Egypt was reaching an explosive state, as was made apparent by Wissa Wassef in the Interparliamentary Conference held in London on 14 July 1930, as well as at a meeting of the League for Human Rights on July 30 of that year in Paris. Meanwhile, a new constitution issued in October 1930 without a referendum was denounced by the Wafd and the Liberal Movement, who decided to boycott the elections of May 1931. Violent demonstrations followed these events.
On 27 May 1931, Wissa Wassef died of food poisoning, said by some to have been intentional. His funeral was attended by over a million people, proof of the popularity he had gained.
[See also: Political Parties.]
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- Tignor, R. Modernization and British Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914. Princeton, N.J., 1966.
CÉRÈS WISSA WASSEF